NYC Hot Sauce Expo 2014: A Gathering of Daring 'Chileheads' & Latin Food Lovers Who Torch Their Taste Buds
"Are you a chilehead?" was the first question asked of me as I entered the Second Annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo 2014. My interrogator was Sam McCannless, from the International Society of Culinary Pyros, who donned a bright red Mohawk-like hair-do, a welcoming smile and a flame-patterned suit.
I had officially entered the hot sauce zone. I was prepared to stop, drop and roll like Smokey the Bear had taught me as a child.
"Was I a 'chilehead?'" Obviously not, as it was my first time attending the expo, which was held at the Penn Plaza Pavilion on March 29 and 30 and presented by High River Sauces. I wondered what it took to become a "chilehead" and whether I'd be inducted into this "hella-cool," or in this case "hella-hot" club of daring hot sauce enthusiasts? Or would I be swallowed up by a heat-infused frenzy for my taste buds?
I figured, I am half-Latin, so maybe my ethnicity would give me a boost as I entered the depths of culinary hell. I admit, I am a newbie when it comes to hot sauces, but I am trying to re-train my picky palate and be more daring in my culinary exploration.
As a kid, I was always a picky eater, and often it was a battle at the dinner table. My poor mother would try to get me to take a few more bites, as I hid my steak inside my mashed potatoes. Even to this day, as an adult, I have been known to order the "special" and change the order entirely! Totally annoying, I know!
Besides my amateur hot sauce status, I went into the New York City Hot Sauce Expo with my mild-mannered palate and tried to play it safe in the beginning, but as I sampled more sauces, I was upping the ante on my heat level. Maybe I just wanted to gain my chilehead status, which was really a pathetic attempt compared to others I witnessed 'en fuego.'
The heat was on full blast in the presence of the Guinness Book of World Records' hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, which made its official introduction during the eating competition on March 30. Bloody Mary mixologists were hard at work, making their magical concoctions, which are allegedly a cure for the common hangover.
I Love It Spicy & Volcanic Peppers presented the Spicy Eating Competition, which had some of the hottest toppings on earth, including the aforementioned Carolina Reaper, as well as Scorpion and Ghost peppers. Iburn & Intensity Academy presented the Lollipop Lick-a-thon, where there were several contestants who were reduced to tears from the "Hot Lollies," sweet and spicy lollipops infused with chile peppers. The heat was so intense for one contestant that he threw up!
What was it like to participate in a Lollipop Lick-a-thon of this caliber?
"I have never been this spiced out in my life, and I love spicy foods," Shruti, who is from India and now lives in New York City told Latin Post. "I love ghost peppers and any kind of habanero sauce. Ghost peppers are considered the hottest in India."
"That was tough," he said. "So I tried a number of hot sauces up to this point -- they had different flavors and different levels of heat and all of them were tolerable and quite good, however, I met my match with The Rapture. My mouth was literally on fire, which essentially had me pacing, sweating and I was borderline crying."
While a beer seemed to open up his taste buds more and accentuate the fire, his salvation was an unsweetened iced tea. (While the expo was a blast, having a water and milk station to help put the fire out, as well as a color-coded system would be a huge help, stated The Rapture survivor.)
"The Rapture is the hottest sauce we carry, it is about 1.2 million Scoville units -- in layman's terms, "a jalapeño is about 10,000 Scoville units...It's 66.6 percent of Scorpion chile," Dave Lynch of Torchebearer Sauces told Latin Post.
Lynch, whose favorite hot sauce is the Zombie Apocalypse (half chile and half habanero) admits that "the Rapture is kind of evil." And while a third of their products are spicy, their bestsellers are its garlic and horseradish sauces.
So what happens to you taste buds when you eat blazing hot sauce and your mouth is on fire?
They burn right off -- but have no fear.They regenerate!
It turns out that taste buds are indeed constantly regenerating and go through a life cycle, growing from basal cells into taste cells and then die and are sloughed away, Women's Day reports.
According to Dr. Bartoshuk, their normal life cycle is anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. However, "burning your tongue on hot foods can also kill taste buds," she says. "But they grow right back, which is why the ability to taste doesn't diminish with age."
After witnessing those who temporarily sacrificed their taste buds, I was ironically drawn to more flames, hence my next visit to the Hell Fire Hot Sauce booth.
With their rock-like vibe, long hair and flaming backdrop, I found what seemed to be like the Metallica of the hot sauce expo.
"My dad was a chilehead and he started growing all kinds of peppers when I was a teenager," Merle Hagger Mortenson of Hell Fire, who hails from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, told Latin Post.
While many assume that Latinos can handle their heat, that's not necessarily true.
"Everyone says Latin people can really handle their heat, but I have worked with a lot (of Latinos) and I have a construction company and I bring some stuff out to them and they say, 'wow that's too hot for me!' he explained. "We cater to the extreme chileheads and we are working our way down to the mild stuff. We just had Steve Smallwood of 'The Machine,' and he got two bottles of Evil Bastard."
In an effort to go more mild and gourmet, Mortenson and his partner Diane have been sharing their Devil's Delight with less heat-crazed foodies in restaurants. Yet their hot sauce bottles add to the intimidation. Made by artist/potter Dan Norton in South Carolina, they have scary skeletons and bulging eyeballs, reminiscent of what can happen to you if you have too much hot sauce.
Before I left the expo, I was drawn to one last booth, with a product called Deception Salsa. Besides loving the name, I really enjoyed taking things down a notch and tasting the Girly Girl (Mild Tomato Salsa) and the The Entice (Medium Corn and Bean Salsa).
When asked how he came up with the name of his signature salsas," owner Tom Wadzink told Latin Post, "I got a divorce." I guess heartache can really bring out certain senses!
So what did I take away from the Second Annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo?
From a culinary standpoint, I learned that you can't mess with chileheads -- they are the real deal when it comes to turning up the heat in the kitchen.
I also learned that for several hot sauce inventors and salsa makers, their products were a path to a new life and a chance to leave their day job or the constraints of the corporate world and tap into their true passion. I have always admired people like that, the ones who take chances and turn up the heat even it gets uncomfortable.
Sometimes, we all need to leave our comfort zones and live a little. So, with that said, turn up the heat, 'don't fear the reaper,' ignite your senses and once in a while give your palate -- and your life a spicy challenge. ¡Viva la hot sauce!
Subscribe to Latin Post!
Sign up for our free newsletter for the Latest coverage!